“Yeah, I called her up, she gave me a bunch of junk about me not listening to her, or something. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention.” –Harry in Dumb and Dumber
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown
How often do you try to communicate something important to you, and find the other person isn’t listening? Sometimes it’s obvious and/or direct, sometimes it’s more subtle.
Here are some behaviors you may notice:
- The interrupter—can’t wait for you to finish a sentence or thought before jumping in
- The daydreamer—can’t seem to get their attention
- The bored look—acts as if what you have to say has no value or interest
- The debater—looking to disagree with or argue about whatever you are saying
- The fidgeter—has one or more nervous habits that are distracting
- The clueless—doesn’t begin to understand what you are saying
- The cell phone addict—can’t put it down or needs to answer every text
There are many reasons this happens, even beyond more obvious ones like:
- You are being critical of the other person or of someone or something they care about.
- The other person is so self-absorbed, they don’t seem to have the capacity to listen.
- Your tone of voice is harsh, shrill, complaining, or threatening.
- They interpret what you’re saying as judgmental, even when it isn’t.
- They treat what you are saying as humorous, even when you’re serious
Some not so obvious reasons:
- The other person is preoccupied with their own issues/concerns
- They have a disagreement or lingering negative feelings towards you regarding a previous experience which hasn’t been resolved
- They are prejudiced towards you in some way including personality issues, your beliefs and/or values, your general attitude, or style of communication
- They are intimidated by you, or see you as someone not worthy of their attention
- You remind them of someone they have had an unpleasant experience with
Look at these lists and check off the ones that seem to occur often and with more than one or two people. Notice if there are any similarities in the others’ personality or style, e.g. impatience, needing to dominate the conversation, unwilling to express themselves honestly, etc. One of the reasons you may not feel listened to can be you are choosing to share with people who are uninterested in listening. You may want to rethink your choices.
Assuming you really want people to listen to you, there are things you can do to improve your chances of finding a receptive audience.
Think about what you want to share and why it’s important to have someone listen.
a) You have pent up feelings and want to release the tension
b) You feel unsure of your choices and want some feedback
c) You want to check out if what you are thinking/feeling is reasonable
d) You want to feel support and caring about your dilemmas
e) You want to impress someone with your good ideas, knowledge, etc.
f) You want to let someone know how considerate, caring, thoughtful you are
The reasons you want to share will influence the response you get. For example, e) and f) above can come across as you just wanting to feed your ego. If you do this often, others can pick up on it and become less receptive to listening.
If it’s due to any of the other reasons and you do this often, others may start to feel burdened. When you feel stressed or anxious and a pressing need to vent, get feedback or support, it’s hard to stay aware of how receptive your listener is. Pay attention to how often you are asking others to listen for any of the above reasons. Notice how your listener is responding. Does he/she act interested? Caring? Responsive? Or do you get brief answers, attempts to change the subject, quick comments of advice or judgments, or brief body language that says the other person is disengaged? One way to get a sense if the other is agreeable to listen is to check in with them before you launch into your conversation. First ask them something like: “I have a need to vent/unburden myself,” or “I need/would like some feedback from you about an issue I’m struggling with, are you willing to listen?”
It is a natural desire to relieve ourselves of the multitude of thoughts and feelings that can occupy lots of space in our heads. Keeping everything inside can create stress which can lead to less than effective and rewarding connections with others. Keeping a journal can help you relieve yourself of some of the pressure, help you sort things out, and have less need to overburden others. You can also write freely without fear of being judged (unless you judge yourself). And, that would be another topic for you to journal on! Keeping a journal is best used with stream of consciousness writing: writing down whatever comes to mind, allowing yourself to follow a wandering road, even if it started out to be something else.
Another reason you may not get listened to: You are a very good listener and are reluctant to take your turn, giving others the impression you don’t care about sharing. Do you allow yourself to honestly share feelings, to be somewhat vulnerable? This will make you come across as human and genuine, which builds trust.
Being an effective, active listener is an opportunity for you to create the space and willingness from others for you to share. Active Listening is a process where you repeat, paraphrase or summarize what the other person is saying before you go any further. The other person responds with “Yes,” or some indication of agreement, or “That’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant,” or “That’s not what I said.” They then have the opportunity to clarify their statement and know they are being heard accurately. Only then do you proceed, preferable by asking them to tell you more. This will lead to them achieving “emotional clearance.”
When you are an active listener:
- You are building rapport, which leads to building trust
- The other person will feel respected, accepted, and valued which makes them more open to you
- You are demonstrating the skills of listening
- You are creating “emotional clearance”—when the other person feels fully listened to, they feel relieved and satisfied, and become more open to listening.
It takes self-awareness and self-management in the form of restraint to temporarily withhold your own needs or desires to get the willing ear of someone else. It can be challenging to maintain this dialogue when you are anxious to express yourself; it is however, the best way to get the attention and responses you need or want. It doesn’t take as long as it might seem: “Dialogue takes time, everything else takes longer.” You are saving time otherwise needed to clear up misunderstandings, inaccurate assumptions, and confusion.
Pay attention to your conversations and see if you can identify what you might be doing that discourages others from listening. (see list of your reasons above) One way to do this is to pay attention to the other person’s body language and any negative energy you feel coming from them. You can feel the negative energy when the other person isn’t fully present, and may notice things like fidgeting, checking their watch or phone, quick to jump in with advice or judgement, a look of boredom or irritation, or signs of impatience.
We all have the need for human connection, and mutual sharing is an important way to establish that. In a world that is increasingly relying on communication via technology,
whether it be email, texting, or social media, we are losing the skill and inclination for more personal contact with others. Studies are increasingly showing that these types of communication do not give people the satisfaction and quality of relationships they need.
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph G. Nichols
I’d be interested in your comments and experiences on this topic.
If you’d like more information on the benefits of journaling and what or how to write, let me know.
Feel free to share this blog with anyone you think might be interested.